10.8.2023 Dark River Festival – Day 1 @ Honkalan Hiihtostadion, Kotka

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Even though the Hellsinki Metal Festival had some damned good acts that were hard to pass up, some of us still still felt the draw to that sweet, sweet Kotka festival that we love so much: Dark River Festival. With acts like local INSOMNIUM and STAM1NA, as well as popular Gothenburg act DARK TRANQUILLITY and the rarely seen at festivals MACHINE SUPREMACY headlining, it was absolutely worth heading out east for a couple nights!

Word on the street is that the festival’s Thursday is mainly for the campers’ entertainment when they show up early, so the crowd is always lighter on this day, while there are only a few bands. However, we were pleased to notice how many foreigners had traveled to Finland this year for the event. There were also a lot of people who seem to like dressing up for the event in corpse paint, masks, leathers, you name it – they should consider bringing Fairy Factory in as a vendor someday, since they have some unique clothing designs that might suit this crowd.

Arrival was a tad strange, as upon passing through the gates, we were greeted by a banner for last year, with no sign of this year updated anywhere. The layout was otherwise much the same as the last few years, with the smaller upper stage by the venue buildings and the larger stage next to the food court a bit lower down – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

The shortened first day, Thursday the 10th, started strong with a bunch of solid local acts: BALANCE BREACH, PSYCHEWORK, …AND OCEANS, and INSOMNIUM, with Asim Searah back MCing on the main stage, which we began enjoying last year. The first of these acts, BALANCE BREACH, continued their summer stretch with some solid up-and-coming Finnish metalcore. Solid tracks like “Heart like Siberia,” “More than Machines,” “Overthrown,” and “November” were included, making for a strong and energetic set.

It’s been several years since PSYCHEWORK have released an album (2018, to be precise), so it was cool to get a chance to see them somewhere this summer. Though they don’t have a new album to show off, they do have a new single as of May, “Kiova,” so there was at least one new song to look forward to! “Karelian Hills” and “Hand on Heart” (the opening and closing tracks respectively) were also great to hear after so long.

…AND OCEANS seems to be the most popular thing since sliced bread since their resurgence, so we were pleased to hear them put on another deeply punishing and brutal performance – that new lineup is really working well for them! I personally last caught them at the Mustamessu in Lahti earlier this year and it seems as though they’re still killing it!

Lastly, the night wrapped up with INSOMNIUM, who have been touring their Anno 1696 release from February, which was heavily represented in their set and sounded excellent. However, some classics like “While We Sleep,” “Mortal Share,” and “Heart Like a Grave” filled out the rest of the set. The crowd was really enthusiastic and the atmosphere was really strong, making for a great ending to the first night.

The festival area has likely remained the same due to the fact that, as mentioned before, this area works. They don’t try to force an uncomfortable tent stage, but rather keep the bar in the tent, so there is some rain space for days like Thursday with a bit of a downpour, but the stages are open-air, meaning there’s better space and sound. Plus, the overall venue size is small enough that it takes very little time or energy to get anywhere. You could run a lap around the whole place in less than 5 minutes.

Now, the layout was great, but the food vendors were a bit disappointing this year, as the local Pallas Pizza Wagon (our absolute favorite from the last few events) was sadly not present this time around, while the BBQ Bus smokery was way more expensive than anything I’ve seen anywhere else (for reference, the common Papa’s Smokery that we see at a lot of other festivals was on average 5€ cheaper per meal, which is wild). The Van has good food, but I had hoped that I complained about how deeply unsuited Honkasalon Hatsapuri is for festivals last year enough that I wouldn’t see them this year. Their food is a greasy, disgusting, bad representation of traditional Georgian food, and way too big to eat comfortably in a festival. It somehow felt as though there were less options, even if that wasn’t true. There was also no clear vegan option anywhere; The Van at least had a lentil burger but standard buns often have milk in them, so vegan options just didn’t seem available, unfortunately.

The stalls for merch were all lined up in a row near the lower bar, with merch, hats, as well as a couple of jewelry/trinket shops – one more towards furs and pagan style and the other more suited to Goths. It was a shame that Corpse Paint Soaps wasn’t here, but perhaps she was busy this weekend?

Having felt like we thoroughly explored the area, we headed out so we could be ready for when the festival proper started the next day!

Text by Bear Wiseman